"Carmen Mitchell is luminous, displaying a wonderful soprano that is showcased in songs like “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and her lushly romantic duet “Stranger in Paradise” with the handsome young Caliph."
Reviewed by Suzanne and Greg Angeo
Members, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
Photos by Diana Dumbadse and Tamarah Barton
Jacob Bronson, Carmen Mitchell
Superb Voices Steal the Show
A dreamy, exotic fantasy with its musical roots in 19th-century Russian classical opera is being presented by Spreckels Theatre Company. “Kismet” is known for its hypnotically beautiful and challenging score. Based, in part, on melodic themes from composer Alexander Borodin’s 1890 opera “Prince Igor” and Edward Knoblock’s 1911 play, the musical familiar to modern audiences was crafted by composer/lyricists George Forrest and Robert Wright, with book byCharles Lederer and Luther Davis. It had its premiere in Los Angeles in 1953 and made its first Broadway bow later that year, garnering a Tony Award for best musical. Amazingly, though long dead, Borodin also received a posthumous Tony Award that year for his unwitting contributions to “Kismet”.
Set in Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age, “Kismet” recounts the adventures of a wily thief-beggar-poet known as Hajj and his beautiful daughter Marsinah. There’s a nasty Wazir of Police to hide from, a handsome young Caliph to fall in love with, and much pageantry, singing and rejoicing in between. Opening and closing the show as a sort of bookend Master of Ceremonies, and serving as the Caliph’s advisor, is none other than Omar Khayyam, the tenth-century “Persian Shakespeare” made legendary by his Rubaiyat, a collection of poems. It’s a nice touch and gives the show some historical context.
Harry Duke, Brenda Reed
This is a huge show for Spreckels (or any other theatre company), with the potential of ballooning an equally huge budget for costumes, orchestra, cast and crew. A more economical approach, that chosen by Spreckels, is a scaled-down “staged” (or semi-staged) concert version. Some staged concerts place the orchestra on a slightly raised platform onstage, with the musicians costumed like the actors. For the Spreckels production of “Kismet”, the 11-piece orchestra is placed upstage, at the same level as the cast, and dressed in their usual attire.
Tim Setzer gives a bright, energetic performance as the comic poet Hajj, with his always-engaging stage presence and voice. Harry Duke as the dreaded Wazir (a kind of chief of police and judge all rolled into one) comes off more cranky-pants than evil. He’s a pleasure to watch, but it’s his excellent baritone bass that really grabs your attention. Brenda Reed as his wandering wife Lalume is a belter in the tradition of Ethel Merman, but with a deliciously mischievous air.
As Hajj’s lovely daughter Marsinah, Carmen Mitchell is luminous, displaying a wonderful soprano that is showcased in songs like “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and her lushly romantic duet “Stranger in Paradise” with the handsome young Caliph. Recently seen in Spreckels’ glorious “Light in the Piazza”, Jacob Bronsonas the Caliph possesses a thrilling tenor voice and an easy, natural manner onstage.
Another gorgeous piece is “And This is My Beloved”, a four-part harmony performed by Mitchell, Bronson, Setzer and Duke that sends chills up your spine – it’s that good. These four performers, and the chorus, were consistently excellent and carried the show. Jeremy Berrick as Omar Khayyam radiated strength and dignity throughout his performance. Costume note: The real-life Khayyam was a Persian, not an Arab, so why is Berrick wearing an Arab-style headdress?
The energy and momentum is sustained throughout with nice scene transitions and colorful sets. Even so, it seems under-rehearsed. Some of the dance numbers lack polish and the orchestra is off-key, sometimes painfully so. The placement of the orchestra inadvertently causes the conductor to become a bit of a distraction. Occasionally the vigorous movements of his arms upstage the actors. And, usually a show-stopper, in this instance the Paradyne projections can’t compete with the other stage lighting.
Director Gene Abravaya offers a truly entertaining production, with moments of pure magic. With just a bit more rehearsal time, it could be one of the better shows at Spreckels